The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Tome On The Range

Music Has The Right To Children: Reframing Mark Fisher's Hauntology
The Quietus , March 15th, 2020 09:43

In an exclusive essay coinciding with the publication of his new book Egress, Matt Colquhoun argues that Mark Fisher's observations remain as pertinent today as they ever were

The Caretaker at the Barbican. Photo by Matt Colquhoun

I’m fairly certain that, in talking about the prospect of Repeater Books’ since-published K-punk anthology, shortly after the death of Mark Fisher in 2017, it was Fisher’s friend and colleague Kodwo Eshun who suggested that a great name for the collection would be “Essays Critical and Clinical”. If only that name had not already been taken...

Published shortly before his death in 1995, Essays Critical and Clinical was instead a name given to the final book written by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze. A collection of essays, predominantly about literature, the book was a development of its titular terms — “the critical (in the literary sense) and the clinical (in the medical sense)” — that Deleuze had previously claimed were “destined to enter into a new relationship of mutual learning.”

Deleuze had first pondered this relationship years before, exploring what really connects the writings of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and the Marquis de Sade to their clinical namesakes: the sexual pathologies of masochism and sadism respectively. In this final work he wondered, more generally, what the reciprocal relationship between cultural production and psychoanalysis looked like at the end of the twentieth century.

Having read Deleuze as a student, this sort of questioning was present within many of Mark Fisher’s writings also, albeit updated and made more accessible through his books, blog posts and other writings on the pop-cultural landscape of the present. From his PhD thesis, Flatline Constructs, to his final completed book, The Weird and the Eerie, Fisher inhabited the role of the cultural diagnostician with ease, exploring the hidden pathologies still waiting to be excavated from our collective psyches, contained embryonically in our works of weird literature, Hollywood film or haunted music.

Nowhere was this clearer than on the very first page of his best-selling book, Capitalist Realism, in which Fisher considers the film Children of Men not just as a work of speculative fiction but as a symptom of our contemporary cultural malaise. For example, describing a scene in the film where the protagonist, Theo, visits his brother’s Bond villain-esque compound in Battersea Power Station – the entrance to which is, in fact, despite the magic of cinema, ironically and recognisably situated in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern — Fisher writes:

Cultural treasures — Michelangelo’s David, Picasso’s Guernica, Pink Floyd’s inflatable pig — are preserved in a building that is itself a refurbished heritage artifact. This is our only glimpse into the lives of the elite, holed up against the effects of a catastrophe which has caused mass sterility: no children have been born for a generation. Theo asks the question, ‘how all this can matter if there will be no-one to see it?’ The alibi can no longer be future generations, since there will be none. The response is nihilistic hedonism: ‘I try not to think about it’.

It is no coincidence that the cultural objects Fisher points to in Children of Men are as impotent as the wider world in which they exist. Believing that criticism was a mode of production in its own right, Fisher had no interest in pinning down cultural works, like butterflies to a board, to be analysed and dissected. However, he did not see this same commitment to cultural production echoed in the world around him. Cultural studies — even music and arts journalism more broadly — had an unfortunate tendency to treat cultural artefacts like the capitalist elite, perhaps not consciously but certainly as a result of their pervasive influence. In this sense, Children of Men becomes a hyperbolic rendering of the present, and so Fisher puts it back to work on us, presenting “capitalist realism” — the belief that the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism — immediately as a symptomatology of the late capitalist condition, excavated from its own cultural offerings.

“Symptomatology is always a question of art”, wrote Deleuze. In Fisher’s writings, this could not have been more literal. His symptomatologies were cultural objects in their own right, extending the habits of the twentieth-century’s modernists into a new century that had otherwise become hostile to their once-influential demands. As Fredric Jameson — another of Fisher’s major influences — once wrote, modernism enacts “a distancing from psychology”, from our own symptoms, in a way that “allows us to walk around them and to contemplate them like so many objects.” This is to say that it is precisely by diagnosing the present that the new is created.

However, in the twenty-first century, such an approach is practiced less often. It is even, Fisher believed, less possible. Contemplating this absence as a symptom in itself, he longed for a revived conception of a “popular modernism”. As Phoebe Braithwaite wrote recently for Tribune magazine, this was Fisher’s phrase for “a kind of culture — most often found in music — which straddled the experimental and the mainstream. While popular, it required work to be fully understood, doing away with past forms, following a modernist make it new imperative.”

Fisher’s frustration with this lack of the new led to the development of what has become his most famous (and, arguably, most controversial) cultural critique: hauntology. Through his work on this topic, written in blogospheric collaboration with the music critic Simon Reynolds, Fisher described how the potential futures we once looked forward to — in our fictions, our music and our politics — have repeatedly failed to materialise and, in their place, we have a culture defined by repetitive cycles of retrospection and pastiche.

This exposition of late capitalism’s cultural logic was, again, borrowed from the academic world of continental philosophy. As Simon Reynolds explains in his 2011 book Retromania, summarising the philosophical writings of Jacques Derrida, from whom the term “hauntology” is taken, it was originally used “to discuss the uncanny persistence of [Karl] Marx’s ideas after the death of communism and [Francis Fukuyama’s concept of] ‘the end of history’.” In other words, Derrida wondered how a desire for communism could continue to haunt the political landscape despite its apparent “death” in the fall of the Soviet Union. In the late 2000s, it was a cultural version of this same problem that Fisher saw at work in the output of a new generation of artists and musicians, who explored, albeit implicitly, our persistent desire for a rave politics after the apparent death of rave.

Despite these lofty intentions, whilst much has been made of Mark’s writings on hauntology, in practice his theories have often been rendered hauntographically by others. For clarity, we can understand the difference between hauntology and hauntography as being similar to the difference between biology and biography — one orders and describes the events of a life after the fact; the other is a study of life as it is lived, and all the mechanisms and relations that make it possible. In these terms, Fisher saw himself as less a writer of obituaries and more as a necromancer for not just lost futures but the futures we are continually losing. To dismiss his hauntological writings as the cultural mourning of an out-of-touch writer from Generation X — as is common amongst new readers today — is to ignore the innate hope his writings contained and the riling declaration that the new could only emerge from a vigilance regarding one’s own cultural position in relation to the recent past.

To offer a less unwieldy cultural example of this tension from within Fisher’s own interests, we can emphasise that he hated the Arctic Monkeys and their ordering and describing late-twentieth century cultural signifiers, album after album. However, at the same time, he loved the modernist tendencies erupting through this pervasive malaise, audible in the “metaphysical crackle” he heard on albums by Burial and The Caretaker — two musicians that Fisher’s writings are now synonymous with. However, his loves and hates should not be equated with one another. “One’s diagnosis and one’s a symptom,” he argued in an interview with Crack magazine. “Whereas Arctic Monkeys airbrush cultural time out and appeal to this endless return and timelessness of rock”, the likes of Burial and the Caretaker instead highlight the “broken time of the twenty-first century.”

Since Fisher first made this argument, the separation between these two modes of cultural production has only gotten more extreme. The Arctic Monkeys have reached the terminal beach of their predictable trajectory, entombing themselves in a Teddy Boy cultural purgatory of their own making — quite literally on their last album, 2018’s Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. This titular hotel is to the Arctic Monkeys as the Overlook Hotel was to Jack Torrence in Stanley Kubrik’s The Shining. Meanwhile, Burial and the Caretaker, the lucid observers, look upon these trapped souls and see that their hallucinations and temporal distortions as the ailments of unwell men.

This analogy is already a part of the Caretaker’s particular body of work, with the project taking its name from Jack Torrence’s role at the Overlook Hotel. Just as Jack is transformed, horrifically and unwittingly, by his environment in The Shining, so too is the dementia patient — the focus of Leyland Kirby’s final string of albums under the Caretaker moniker — transformed by the unfolding experience of mental degradation. The horror of dementia comes from its reduction of a person to a shell of their former self but there are other, more positive associations to be made here too. Music, as we know, has a transformative effect on the mind of the dementia patient, wresting them from their clinical condition and reactivating their critical faculties. Similarly, Ivan Seal’s free-associative and improvised paintings, which adorn Kirby’s album covers, further emphasise the dormant positivity of an otherwise melancholic project, depicting the other side of memory loss, through which half-remembered ornaments and bric-à-brac that take on newly psychedelic forms, like flower arrangements from a new and alien world.

The intention here is certainly not to reimagine dementia as a positive disease. Nevertheless, understood more as a comment on our collective cultural dementia, the sentiment offers us some hope for the future. In this sense, Kirby’s works are less documents of an individual failing mind and more like psychedelic soundscapes onto which restricted desires re-emerge to hallucinate new ways of living. (With this in mind, for a project that could seemingly continue for eternity, it is telling and heartening that Kirby has let it die — what new project might now emerge from the ashes?)

Hauntological music, like the Caretaker’s, is, in this sense, a kind of critique as Ballardian invention. Just as J.G. Ballard’s novels are strewn with prescient cultural observations, he also sketched bold new visions of what the human subject might look like if left too long in the pressure cooker of his concerns. Similarly, hauntology proper should be seen less as a mere description of the repetitive semiology of capitalist modernity and more as a study of postmodern capitalism’s effects on us as cultural producers and consumers. From this perspective, the Arctic Monkeys emerge as precisely the subjects that hauntology hopes to critique — repetition incarnate, hubris unbound. The music of Burial and the Caretaker, on the other hand, interrogates the impact of this very tendency on the contemporary human subject and produces new sonic worlds in the process.

In a 2012 article for Film Quarterly, Fisher summarised this process as a “confrontation with a cultural impasse: the failure of the future.” Today, we might better understand this cultural impasse as the inertial whiplash of the West post-millennium; a whiplash embodied today by the political discontent of so-called Millennials. This is the irony of the apparent dwindling of hauntology’s relevance for a new generation of bright young things. Whilst Fisher is seen as out of touch by many new readers, the central critique of hauntology has, in fact, become more mainstream — politically, at least — than he could have ever imagined. Greta Thunberg, for example, has captured the attention of the world with her declarations that the future is being stolen from her generation. The same can also still be said of our relationships to our cultural artifacts, but this was stolen from us long ago, with considerably less protesting. Nevertheless, it is a sentiment that goes back some decades. As Boards of Canada most famously declared with the title of their 1998 hauntological masterpiece, music has the right to children. Music also has a right to the future.

The battleground on which this right to the future is being fought today is the impact of streaming monopolies and their suffocation of alternatives. I, for one, am acutely aware of the fact that my access to culture is severely limited compared to ten years ago. So many things are available online, but they also take a lot more effort and financial heft to access than they once did. The other media we consume – MP3s and physical records, DVDs and books – are often made to feel like legacy media by the new streaming monopolies of platform capitalism. The likes of Spotify and Netflix want us to feel like newness is at our fingertips at all times but the reality is that what is on offer on these platforms is infrequently original and more limited than was previously available on the high street or in the darkened corners of peer-to-peer torrent sites, which have since either died a death or otherwise been clamped down upon by capitalist institutions over the last decade. This accessibility and diversity was supposedly reduced in order to save the music industry from piracy but streaming monopolies remain controversial for failing to sustain the cultural production they directly rely on.

None of this is intended to form an argument against the fact that new music is still produced that responds to this present confluence of concerns. Nevertheless, plenty of music remains lost or restricted, captured and made impotent by capitalism’s latest infrastructural innovations. This is particularly true of music that is more explicitly critical of the environment in which it is produced. Simon Reynolds’ recent neologism, “conceptronica”, has controversially reaffirmed these tensions at a time when many would rather believe we had made it through the worst of it.

In the now-infamous article, Reynolds interviews Lee Gamble, amongst many others, whose early records were hauntological to a tee, in style as well as intent. He notes, however, that his style of composition has shifted in more recent years in direct response to the political changes of our time. He is currently making a kind of music that works like “capitalism works — slick, shape-shifting, seducing you with beautiful objects.” This change in style also demonstrates the reasons why the vigilance Fisher called for is more necessary than ever. The temporal anomalies of jungle, slithering through the underground with a veritable “snake style”, now find themselves reborn through Gamble’s new music-capital ouroboros, devouring its own tail. This ouroboros is as economic as it is stylistic. As Reynolds’ tentatively explains, even though experimental music is more explicitly critical than it was ten years ago, this criticality is nonetheless becoming increasingly captured by what Fisher calls the “bureaucratic anti-production” of academic expectations and art world funding requirements.

Such a situation must not discourage us. Diagnosing the problem, as myriad artists continue to do, is half the battle. Through the works of Burial, the Caretaker, Lee Gamble — and countless others, it must be said, less readily associated and familiar with the writings of Mark Fisher — we see imaginative desires for the new rupturing through the most destructive of capitalist pathologies. We can also see Fisher’s popular modernism re-emerging here too. Take this quote, for example, from a K-punk post on The Jam, which is just as applicable to this brief reappraisal of experimental music and Fisher’s own work besides. He writes: “We can apprehend yet another paradox here. What made this music culture so positive was its capacity to express negativity — a negativity that was thereby de-privatised as well as de-naturalised.”

Here Fisher is describing a paradox that is not contained within capitalism itself but within cultural production under capitalism. With all the musicians above, we see a similar process at play. With the Caretaker, dementia itself is de-privatised and de-naturalised. The experience, as a result, becomes impersonal. It becomes all of ours, no longer enclosed within the mind of the subject but is instead opened up to the rest of us, psychedelically, so that it might be transformed through a clinical and critical reappraisal. For Fisher, this kernel was not a pit of out-of-touch despair. It was a machine of desire, ready to spit out the new. It will only remain as such if we continue to force it to do so.

Matt Colquhoun is a writer and photographer from Kingston-Upon-Hull. He currently lives in London and blogs at xenogothic.com. His first book, Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher, is published by Repeater Books